There is an urban legend about this song, claiming that Phil Collins wrote this song after witnessing a friend drown, but he was unable to help. Supposedly there was a person close to the incident who could have helped, but he stood idly by. Collins then tracks down the person in question, and gives him front row tickets to one of his shows to humiliate him.

In fact, the song is about Collin's frustration and bitterness over the end of the marriage with his first wife.

It's worth noting that this song was also frequently heard accompanying shots of Sonny Crockett's Ferrari Daytona driving through Miami in the television series 'Miami Vice'. It has since become an unofficial anthem for the show; whenever one is mentioned, the other is not far behind. This stems from the curious fact that, in 1986, Phil Collins was seen to be genuinely cool, a major songwriting talent (despite his cover of Tomorrow Never Knows from his first album).

Whilst the song begins with a plinky-plinky Roland CR-78 drum machine it is extremely famous for the thunderous drum break roughly three quarters of the way through, or 'the bit with the drums' as it is generally called. Using a technique known as gated reverb (invented by Hugh Padham whilst working on Peter Gabriel's third solo album, 'Peter Gabriel'), it ushered in the era of the 80s big drum sound which became as much a cliche as 'Miami Vice' itself (indeed, Jan Hammer's theme for the series used the same effect). At the time, however, 'In the Air Tonight' was thoroughly modern.

And in addition it's the first track on Collins' 1981 album 'Face Value', and reached number 2 in the UK singles charts and number 19 in the American equivalent.

The legend I heard behind the song was different from, though similar to, the one Professor Pi mentions.

The way I heard it, it all starts many years ago. Phil Collins and his wife were out in New York, when they get mugged. After taking their money, the gang then proceeds to rape his wife while forcing him to watch.

Flash foward about five years. Collins and his wife are out canoeing on a river (I don't know which; accounts vary) when a thunderstorm comes rolling in. They manage to get to a safe spot on the banks to wait it out. Then, they see someone out in the river nearby, and toss him a line to help him out. Once they get him onto shore, though, they recognize him as one of the gang who had attacked them.

So they threw him back in the swollen river, where he (presumably) died. Think about this in light of the lyrics:

When you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand...

But I was there and I saw what you did...

But I know the reason why you're keeping silent, son...

The hurt doesn't show, but the pain still grows...

There are also two versions of this song on the radio. The more recent version is most easily identified by the horn section in the refrain. But at both the beginning and the end of this version, there's an interesting little riff on some kind of percussion instrument, which sounds almost suggestive of rushing water.

Consider all these in light of the story, and the song takes on a whole new —and, to be honest, rather disturbing— meaning.

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